Like Socrates, Catholics Have to ‘Box With Shadows’

As we continue our divine mission, we will experience backlash from powerful but foolish people.

Louis Joseph Lebrun, “Socrates’ Address,” 1867
Louis Joseph Lebrun, “Socrates’ Address,” 1867 (photo: Public Domain)

In the year 399 B.C., Socrates was brought to trial in Athens on trumped-up charges of corrupting the youth and teaching about gods other than those of the state.

In reality, his crime was embarrassing influential and powerful people. Through his conversations and questions in search of truth and wisdom, he exposed as fools many who thought they were wise — and being fools who thought they were wise, they appeared all the more foolish since they lacked wisdom about truth and their own foolishness.

Rather than stopping his pursuits for fear of backlash, Socrates continued because he thought he had been given a divine mission. It was only a matter of time before those whom he offended took action against him.

The Apology is Plato’s account of his teacher’s defense speech. Apology here does not mean “saying you’re sorry,” but “defense,” as in apologetics, the science of defending the faith.

At the beginning of his speech, Socrates claims that before he answers the charges brought against him by his accusers in court that day, he must first “reply to the older charges and my first accusers.” This is a puzzling statement because this is his first time in court. Who could his first accusers be, and what could the older charges be?

Socrates explains to the crowd of jurors that when they were growing up, they heard rumors and stories in their homes and in the marketplaces about this man named Socrates who speculated about the heavens above and the earth below. All of their accusations went unanswered, and so they contributed to the growth of a bias and a prejudice against him over time.

Exactly who those people were, exactly what they said, and exactly the nature of the impressions they left, Socrates cannot say, but he knows that they are more dangerous than the clearly-laid-out accusations against him in court that day and his accusers standing before him. Clear objections can be answered. Vague memories and built up attitudes cannot be refuted.

“I must simply box with shadows in my own defense,” says Socrates.

(Spoiler alert: Socrates was condemned to death.)

I often muse that the Catholic Church faces the same problem:

  • “Catholics worship the saints.”
  • “The Catholic Church is against science.”
  • “Catholics have to believe whatever the Pope tells them to.”
  • “Catholic morality is backwards and out of date.”
  • “God is dead.”
  • “Catholicism is just a lot of superstition.”
  • “Catholicism isn’t biblical.”
  • “The Church persecuted Galileo.”

As someone who once tried to disprove Catholicism because I thought it was a heresy, I can attest to the power of these misunderstandings, biases and prejudices from firsthand experience. I even grew up attending church and received all of my sacraments. And yet somehow, by the time I graduated from college and was living my life as a devout Protestant, I had developed a strong anti-Catholic sentiment based on a whole host of misunderstandings.

“There are not 100 people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be,” said Venerable Fulton Sheen.

The Church has to contend with her reputation in the eyes of the multitude, and the lies about her are without limit. 

So what is the answer? Truth and love. In other words: saintliness. Ultimately, it is the work of the Holy Spirit to change the hearts and open the minds of those who persecute the Church in the public square, in their private homes, or even within their own internal forum of ideas and emotions. We cannot control or convince anyone about the beauty of the Church we have come to love; we can only live out her teachings more truly in our own lives. 

Jesus never promised that we would be popular, but he did command us to love, to be patient, to be truthful and to be holy. We cannot control what other people think or feel about us, but we can use such persecutions to become saints. Like Socrates, as we continue our divine mission, we will likely experience backlash from powerful but foolish people.

Socrates didn’t fight for his life or escape when he had the chance, and he was executed. Now he is regarded as the grandfather of philosophy, a hero and a martyr. He lost his trial, but he was not a failure. So, too, the Church may lose the trial in popular opinion, but she can never be completely defeated. We have God’s word on that.